Here is my list of the worst errors that I see crop up all of the time, and I am guilty of some of them just like the rest of us. If you are a left-handed player, flip the info in this blog – it is written from a right-handers’ perspective. In my next blog, I will start referring to left and right-wall banks as “strong-walls” and “weak-walls” in a way that will make sense equally to left and right-handed players.
#1: Defensive stance
Leaning your shoulders forward and your torso over the table on defense is by far the most common error in air hockey. I would estimate that 80% of players, across all skill levels, have incorrect stances on defense. Tim Weissman, 10-time world champion, expertly covers the correct defensive stance in his instructional video:
Why is leaning over the table such a bad mistake? If you are leaning over the table you won’t be able to stop under banks effectively because the forward lean makes moving backward more difficult. Leaning out over the table also puts you in more of a charge-and-snag mentality. On defense blocking the shot must be the first priority, and even though snagging missed shots is important, it is secondary to blocking shots. Blocks are most easily achieved when you have proper defensive mechanics:
- Right leg forward and bent at the knee
- Right knee resting on or just off the table
- Left leg back
- Weight balanced on the balls of feat
- Torso positioned approximately 90 degrees to the floor over the center of body
- Left hand rests on the railing’s edge
In the history of air hockey, there have been 12 national champions. 10 of the 12 players used the defense that I am describing above. Bob Dubuisson and Jose Mora did not. They account for 7 of the 63 titles and they won their championships with great offense. They have the worst 2 defenses out of all of the national champions.
#2: Overly complicated shots and drifts
A forehand cross at 6-6? A fast reverse circle drift followed by a right-wall-over from left-of-center with an exaggerated time delay? Chase crosses? Offense has such an advantage that there is no need for such shots. Doing overly complicated shots and drifts is a tell-tale sign of a player that does not correctly understand offense.
In practice, you should work on the 6 major shots: The cut, cross, and under and overs to both banks. You should also be able to execute these shots from left and right-of-center, with multiple releases. However when you are within a match, you should primarily be scoring with 2-4 shots and only a handful of basic drifts and releases. Too much variety and complication is normally an indication that the offense does not have a plan of attack.
#3: Slow adjustments on defense
On average, there are about 30-35 goals scored against you in a losing set. You have to adjust rapidly! Adjusting to a cut shot after it has sunk on you 10 times is a surefire way to lose a match.
Players typically never adjust in a match or when they do it is too late. You need to be able to effectively adjust on defense in 1-6 shots.
To timely adapt your defense look for the following tells from offense:
- Can you simply react in time to the speed of the puck?
- Is the offense tipping their shots by shooting from different locations? Do they hit their cut from left-of-center at the line and their right-wall-under from right-of-center a foot back from the line?
- Are you able to eliminate certain shots based on drifts? Do they ever shoot left-walls and crosses out of a diamond drift?
- Patterns. Are they capable of hitting the same shot back-to-back even when you have correctly blocked it? Do they always shoot straights at 6-6? Are they more likely to follow a right-wall-under with a right-wall-over? How do they respond to being incorrectly charged?
- Hand positioning
- Relation of mallet to puck
- Body positioning
#4: Not aware of what tactics are least and most effective
If you are playing an unknown top-level pro and you scored a cut to make it 6-6, what shot should you shoot at 6-6?
Most players hit shots that lack purpose. What has worked in the past is most likely to work in the future. Players of all skill levels are too reluctant to hit exact copies of a shot that is scoring. Exploit what is working by using it until it no longer works.
What shots are being scored on you, at what percentage, and in what order? You do not need to know the exact answers to these questions, but you should at least be able to give an approximation, even during matches. If you are unaware of what is scoring on you and your opponent, how can you effectively adjust?
And to answer the question at the beginning of this section, if you have no other information, you must shoot a cut. Do not give someone credit for adjusting until they do so.
#5: Tipping shots by location
Offenses typically hit their shots from where they are most comfortable: Left-walls from left-of-center, crosses and cuts from center, and right-walls from right-of-center. It is like reading a cheap novel when a player does this.
On offense you must be able to strike the under and complimentary straight from the exact same location. When I enter a match, this is the first thing that I try to make the defense aware of. I want the defense to realize that I have the ability to hit the under and its complimentary straight from the exact same location, while using the same drift and release. Once I feel that I have “explained” this to the defense, I then may or may not start hitting the shots from different locations depending on how my opponent is reacting.
#6: Unders lack correct velocity
Unders should travel at the max speed that the table will allow the puck to move without flying off. In practice you should work on increasing the speed of your unders until you have the ability to strike the puck and cause it to leave the table. From there you can scale back the speed of your unders depending on table conditions. Think of it like this: If you are never hitting the puck off the table on unders, you are not striking the puck with enough power.
Unders must be fast, really fast. They are the foundation of offense, especially vs. a pyramid defense. The defense must always be kept in check with unders. If you have a fast and accurate under, the defense cannot wander; in other words it makes it very risky for the defense to attempt to snag pucks. A fast under commands respect and opens up straights, overs, and it also keeps the defense on its heels. Without an under there is nothing that can score; all straights and both over-the-mallets can be blocked by a single out position on defense.
#7: Mallet selection
There is no need for hard mallets or low-tops. Offense is the easier part of air hockey. Your mallet selection should be geared around defense. A soft or original high-top mallet is the only thing that makes sense. With a high-top more hand contacts the mallet, and that means more control.
By and large, generating enough power on offense to reach critical mass is not difficult. Defense and puck control are the more difficult facets of air hockey skill, and mallet selection should cater to these areas.
A soft or original high-top mallet is the more effective material on defense. It is softer so the mallet deadens the puck upon impact of an oncoming shot and also makes catching your own missed shots easier.
Of the 64 national championships, 59 were won with high-tops and 5 with low-tops – Davis Lee won 2, Robert Hernandez won 2, and Owen Geraldo won 1. Davis modifies and extends his low-top’s nub so much that it is almost like a half-top. Owen Geraldo had an outstanding defense but his offense was the worst of any champion in air hockey’s history. If anyone needed a low-top to assist with a sub-par offense, Owen did.
Not recentering on defense is the most egregious error that can be made. Most players of all skill levels, pros included, seem not to even be aware of the concept of recentering.
#9: Puck control
Puck control has a wide definition, from the ability to maneuver the puck to catching it after executing a shot and resetting. The mistake that I see players make, largely amateur to pro skill level, is simply hitting the puck when it crosses the centerline or catching the puck and then willy-nilly hitting a shot based on where the puck just happens to be. Normally, you should catch the puck, and then establish control by taking it to a fixed location before executing a drift and shot. Think of it like a pitcher in baseball catching the ball after he has made a pitch, then returning to the mound and using a controlled windup prior to throwing an assortment of different pitches.
After you execute a shot your ideal next move is to:
1) Have the shot score. (Very acceptable.)
2) Catch the puck in front of you. (Acceptable.)
3) Catch the puck from behind after it bounces of your own back rail. (Risk involved. Less room for error.)
4) Chase the puck with an intentional off-goal shot. (More risk involved. The defense has the chance to interfere with a semi-controlled shot.)
5) Chase the puck with an intentional on-goal shot. (Even more risk involved. The defense has the chance to block and interfere with a semi-controlled shot.)
6) Volley the puck. (Most risk involved. Volleys/1-2s are the most uncontrolled shots. An aware defense should look to interfere when these shots are attempted.)
#10: Skipping offensive steps
On offense, players typically try to advance too fast. I think that there is a progression of learning in air hockey offense, and that you should master each step before moving on to the next. If you do not you will have holes in your game and you will not be able to effectively exploit defensive errors when they present themselves.
First players should concentrate on the backhand right-wall-under and cut. The order of progression for the right-wall-under and cut should be as follows:
- Centerline from the middle of the table strike location
- Still puck
- Pump fakes
- Time delays
- Intentional off-goals
- Right-of-center strike location
- Left-of-center strike location
- Horizontal drift at the line off the left rail, then the right rail
- Open-V drift off the left rail (1/2 diamond drift), then the right rail
- Left-to-right diagonal drift
- Vertical drift
- Right-to-left-diagonal drift
- Diamond drift
- Back-of-table strike location (pot shots)
Once the above has been mastered, add in the right-wall over-the-mallet bank. Next repeat the process for left-wall-under and cross. Then add in the left-wall over-the-mallet, forehands, off-speeds, chases, and double banks.
If you only have limited time to practice, once a week or less, you should almost exclusively work on right-wall-unders and cuts with time delays, pump fakes and 2 simple drifts (the drifts higher on the list above). If you are working on more than this and not practicing at least 2 days a week, you are probably skipping ahead in your development, spreading yourself too thin, and have holes in your offense.
My next blog is titled “Physical Chess”. I will discuss how to progress through multiple offensive attacks at the same time.
*Originally published July 5, 2013